Beirut explosion puts ammonium nitrate in the spotlight

The explosion occurred on August 4, at a warehouse in Beirut's major port.

On August 4, 2020, a major port explosion caused devastating damage across the city of Beirut, Lebanon. In the initial aftermath, the disaster is reported to have caused at least 100 deaths and injured around 4,000 people. It has since been established that the explosion was caused by the ignition of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate (AN) stored at the port. This tragic event has rocked Lebanon’s largest city and has naturally raised questions over AN storage and handling regulations. This Insight provides context on the well-established safety considerations in the AN industry and considers the implications of another high-profile AN-related incident on the market.

Unsafe storage conditions cited as cause of explosion

The explosion occurred on August 4, at a warehouse in Beirut’s major port. The Lebanese President Michel Aoun has confirmed the blast was caused by 2,750 t of AN that had been stored unsafely in a warehouse at the site. The blast has destroyed the country’s largest port, including silos containing the national grain reserve. Lebanon imports as much as 80% of its food needs and around 85% of the country’s cereals are understood to have been stored in the facility.

The AN is understood to have been impounded at the port since late 2013 when a vessel travelling from Georgia to the port of Beira in Mozambique encountered engine problems and was forced to port. Media reports suggested the ship was deemed unseaworthy by Beirut’s Port State Control and it was forbidden to complete its journey. The ship owner is understood to have declared bankruptcy, leaving the ship and its cargo abandoned at the port.

The Director General of Lebanese Customs told reporters that customs officials had sent six documents to the judiciary warning that the AN stored at the port posed a danger. Lebanon’s Prime Minister also commented that it was unacceptable that the AN had been left for six years at the warehouse without appropriate safety measures.

While the origin and destination of the cargo’s original route are largely immaterial now, the Shipping Agency of the Georgian Ministry of Economy has confirmed that the vessel contained AN produced by Rustavi Azot, the Georgian nitrogen producer. The vessel was destined for Mozambique, which typically imports 35-40 kt per year for explosives use in open pit coal mining, according to CRU estimates.